Howard Katz is the
NFL’s schedule maker. Following a pre-determined formula, he and his team begin
their work by deriving a final list of opponents for each team, home and away.
This is the easy part of his job.
The hard part comes
in determining when those games will be played. Each team states their
preferences to him quite clearly, as do the various networks that pay billions
to the NFL for the right to broadcast those games. In the end, how those games
fall on a team’s respective schedule can add to (or relieve) the difficulty of
We’ve known for some time
that the Miami Dolphins were going to draw the league’s most difficult schedule
on paper. That’s the prize they receive for winning the AFC East. It’s also a
necessary step on their journey towards a championship.
Their 2009 opponents
had a combined .594 winning percentage in 2008. Half of them were playoff teams
or playoff caliber teams (Patriots). That’s a tall stack of mail to deal with,
no matter how one approaches it.
Looking over the
schedule that Katz and friends have come up with, I’ve made the following
1) A fast start is
The first five games will
likely set the tone for the season, with each carrying major playoff
implications for the Dolphins. Games 1 through 3 are against playoff teams
(Falcons, Colts, Chargers), two of which are from the AFC (think divisional and
conference tiebreaker ramifications). Unfortunately, only one of these games
will be played at Dolphin Stadium (Colts). Games 4 and 5 will be at home versus
divisional rivals (Bills and Jets).
are some challenges”, noted coach Tony Sparano. “The schedule has several
playoff teams from last year and conference opponents right at the top, so we
need to be ready to go right from start, underlining the importance of our off-season
program and training camp.”
2) The ‘bye’ week
comes at a good time
No doubt the Dolphins
will need to catch their collective breath after running that opening gauntlet.
Fortunately, Katz sandwiched their ‘bye’ week in the middle of a stretch of
home games (Bills and Jets before, Saints afterwards). This means that the
Dolphins will be sleeping in their own beds for a month straight, a big help in
keeping the team as fresh as possible early on before they face the teeth of
3) The road warrior
mentality must carry over to this season
A big key to the
team’s 2008 success was their ability to win on the road (6-2) in all sorts of
conditions. That penchant must continue in 2009 if they are to qualify for the
playoffs. After their October 25 game at home (Saints), the Dolphins will be on
the road for six of the next eight weeks. They’ll start out with back-to-back
games at divisional rivals Jets and Patriots. That’s a tough patch on its own, though
the good news is that it happens in early November, when the chances of
brutally cold weather will be low. After a home game against in-state rival Tampa Bay, Miami will hit the road again for another two weeks
against a tough Carolina team (12-4) and a
Thanksgiving weekend contest at Orchard
Park versus the Bills,
who figure to be improved in 2009. These two games will set the stage for the
critical December playoff run. That stern test begins at home against the
Patriots, followed by the final two roadies of the season, at Jacksonville
and at Tennessee.
4) Strong finish at
home could determine playoff fate
Given that the
Dolphins are in the playoff hunt come mid-December, their final two games could
decide their postseason fate. Both are against AFC opponents (again, think
tiebreakers), both are at home, and both are tough draws. The first is against
the Texans, the only NFL team they have never defeated (one of only five teams
the Dolphins have a losing record against). The last game of the season should
be a barnburner as the Dolphins will face the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh
5) Only two cold
weather games possible
Katz did the Dolphins
a huge favor in scheduling the away games versus the Jets and Pats in early
November. This means that only the Bills (November 29) and perhaps the Titans
(December 20) games could be contested in adverse conditions.
Then again, after the
way the Dolphins handled themselves in Kansas
City last season, the coldest game in team history,
maybe winter weather isn’t an issue for them anymore.
6) Prime time a stamp
Only the better teams
in the NFL deserve prime time exposure, and the Dolphins have clearly convinced
the networks that they have returned to their historical stature in the NFL.
Four games are currently scheduled to be aired in prime time, and that number
could go up with the NFL’s flexible scheduling policy in play.
"With the NFL
scheduling us for four prime time games this season, it reflects the national
following the Dolphins have built over time and it's indicative of the progress
we’ve made in the last year," said Sparano.
7) Degree of
difficulty could change
As is the case every
season, the fortunes of all teams are changing. Last season, the Dolphins
caught a huge break with their 2008 schedule; originally having .465 opponent
winning percentage strength, it turned out to be much easier (.352).
How will the loss of
coach Tony Dungy and WR Marvin Harrison affect the 12-4 Colts? Will Tennessee’s Kerry
Collins continue his high level of play, or was 2008 a fluke? How much will the
Bills improve, or is Terrell Owens an implosion waiting to happen? Will Tom
Brady return to his normal self? How will the Jets fare under new coach Rex
Ryan, sans Brett Favre and Laveranues Coles?
I’m sure we could
think up many other questions, but you get the idea. The shifting sands of
power in the league could make the Dolphins’ 2009 road easier, or more
2009 Regular Season
Schedule (home games in CAPS)
Falcons 1:00 p.m. CBS
COLTS 8:30 P.M. ESPN
at San Diego
Chargers 4:15 p.m. CBS
BILLS 4:05 P.M. CBS
JETS 8:30 P.M. ESPN
SAINTS 4:15 P.M. FOX
at New York
Jets 1:00 p.m. CBS
at New England Patriots 1:00 p.m.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 1:00 P.M.
Panthers 8:20 p.m. NFLN
Bills# 1:00 p.m. CBS
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS# 8:20 P.M.
Jaguars# 1:00 p.m. CBS
Titans# 1:00 p.m. CBS
TEXANS# 1:00 P.M. CBS
STEELERS# 1:00 P.M. CBS
All games are Eastern Time.
Sunday games in weeks 11-17 subject to change as part of NFL Flex scheduling.